Special Bulletin
16 December 2016

Pre-Christmas survey 2016: Stable sales at chain stores, indies divided x

Christmas sales are tracking at similar levels to last year for the majority of booksellers (63%), with just 13% reporting an increase and 24% reporting a decrease. This compares to last year’s stronger-than-expected pre-Christmas sales, when 80% of the stores surveyed reported a rise in sales, 17% said sales were similar to last year and just three percent said sales were worse.

This year Books+Publishing received feedback from representatives of almost 200 bookshops around Australia. Chain booksellers appear to be having a more stable time of it, with almost all of the chains (97%) reporting that sales are ‘about the same’ as last year. The indies are much more divided, with 25% reporting an increase in sales, 29% reporting similar sales, and 29% reporting a decrease.

It is clear, however, that last year’s strong growth in pre-Christmas sales for both chains and indies has not been repeated.

For the majority of chain stores (98%), Christmas sales are close to expectations. Again, indies are more divided. Forty-four percent report that sales are worse than expected, 45% that they are close to expectations, and 25% that they are better than expected.

‘Last year was a really bumper year and it is hard to imagine we will do as well as that but I imagine we will come close,’ said Anna Low from Potts Point Bookshop in Sydney. ‘It’s started revving up since last weekend, Saturday 10th,’ said Scott Whitmont from Lindfield Bookshop in Sydney, adding that he was ‘optimistic that [sales will] be up by the time we get to Xmas’.

A couple of booksellers spoke about the impact of a possible recession. ‘Every time we turn on the news everyone is talking about recession,’ said one Sydney indie bookseller. Susanne Horman from Robinsons Bookshops in Melbourne noted that there were ‘lots of factors, lots of theories as to why [book sales were down], nothing to do with books—consumer confidence is down due to external factors’. She said that sales had not recovered after a ‘noticeable downturn in October’ and that she was expecting ‘two quarters of negative growth’.

Several states seemed to be doing it worse than others. ‘Perth’s economy is buggered at the moment so things are tight,’ said one Perth indie bookseller. Another indie bookseller from Adelaide noted the ‘low foot traffic into the centre we’re in and SA’s unemployment situation—lots of projects being put on hold recently so not a lot of growth’.

Mark Rubbo from Readings in Melbourne said his two new shops were ‘trading very strongly’ but that online sales were ‘down significantly’. ‘Competition is fierce,’ he noted.

Christmas rush slow to start

In 2015, the majority of booksellers (92%) said the Christmas rush was about the same time—or even earlier—than the year before. This is not the case in 2016, with 79% reporting a later-than-usual Christmas rush (17% said it was about the same, 4% said it was earlier).

This may have something to do with the timing of Christmas Day. ‘We are expecting a huge last week due to Christmas Day falling on a Sunday this year,’ said Dymocks book buyer Sharyn Villaverde. Mary Dalmau from Readers Feast in Melbourne was also anticipating a late surge. ‘Next week is the key,’ said Dalmau. ‘Whenever Christmas is late in a week, the frenzied nature of it doesn’t start until the last week. You don’t know how Christmas Eve is going to go.’

Kara Smith from Imprints in Adelaide was also ‘hoping for a rush next week’. ‘Part of that is that Christmas falls on the Sunday this week, so people think that they have more time than they do.’

Related stories

Nielsen BookScan figures: Volume and value both down as colouring books dry up
The books: Strong across the board; big-name fiction, cookbooks missing
Supply, stock, staff and sales
Online sales and ebooks
Publishers’ perspectives
All down to the last week

 

Nielsen BookScan figures: Volume and value down as colouring books dry up x

Sales in the 10 weeks to 5 December are down 5.9% in value and seven percent in volume this year compared to the same period in 2015, reports Nielsen BookScan.

Drops in nonfiction sales seem to be driving the overall sales results, with nonfiction down 16.8% in value and almost a quarter (24.9%) in volume. Fiction is fairly steady, up 2.2% in value and 0.5% in volume, while children’s books continues to grow, up 5.3% in value and 4.1% in volume.

The top 100 titles reflects the overall downward trend, with volume down 9.7% and value down 7.4%. Sales at the very top are a little stronger, with the 10 bestsellers falling 11.6% in volume but growing marginally (one percent) in value, boosted by a 14.3% increase in the average selling price (ASP) for the 10 bestsellers to $18.50.

Nielsen Book general manager Julie Winters said the market has seen a drop of $13.1m at the tills in the lead-up to Christmas compared to last year. ‘However, this has been driven by the lack of colouring book sales this year vs last,’ said Winters. ‘Last year over the same ten-week period, adult colouring books made $13.9m for the book industry, while this year it’s only at $1.1m.’

Winters added that children’s books have seen an increase in sales led by JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Hachette) and the continuing success of Jeff Kinney’s ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ series (Puffin) and Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton’s ‘Treehouse’ series (Pan).

Despite the downturn, Winters said this season is still stronger than it was two years ago. ‘In fact, 2016 Christmas lead-up is outpacing 2014 by +9.3% in value and +3.1% in volume sales,’ said Winters.

The bestsellers for the past four weeks of sales, according to Nielsen BookScan, are:

  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (J K Rowling, Hachette)
  • Double Down: Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Jeff Kinney, Puffin)
  • Night School (Lee Child, Bantam)
  • The Barefoot Investor (Scott Pape, Wrightbooks)
  • The Midnight Gang (David Walliams, HarperCollins)
  • Guinness World Records 2017 (Guinness World Records)
  • The Four Legendary Kingdoms (Matthew Reilly, Macmillan)
  • Pig the Elf (Aaron Blabey, Scholastic)
  • Working Class Boy (Jimmy Barnes, HarperCollins)
  • The Whistler (John Grisham, Hodder & Stoughton).
 

The books: Strong across the board; big-name fiction, cookbooks missing x

Most booksellers think there’s a strong (53%) or moderate (44%) offering of books this season, with only three percent considering it a weak line-up of titles. Booksellers are more confident in the books than they were last year, when 42% considered it strong and 58% considered it moderate.

While booksellers reported fewer blockbuster titles this year, they seemed to welcome the opportunity to sell a broader range, including backlist titles. Graeme Bowden from The Bookshop at Caloundra in Queensland said there are ‘some really strong titles—probably more obscure titles’. Similarly, Stacey Moore from Book Grove in Victoria said there was ‘something for everybody’. ‘No big standout that’s going to dominate. A great eclectic bunch.’

Despite the overall favourable response, some booksellers pointed at a weak fiction list and a lack of standout cookbooks and coffee-table books. Readings managing director Mark Rubbo, who called the books on offer this year ‘moderate’, said: ‘Australian fiction has few standouts apart from Hannah Kent, and international fiction is weak’.

Kate Horton from Farrells Bookshop in Victoria was also ‘a bit disappointed by the fiction offerings’. ‘Light on for some publishers—lots of film tie-ins but not a lot of meaty literary handselling titles suited to independents. Most staff recommended reads in fiction are from first half of the year.’ Horton’s comment was echoed by Matthew Jose from The Bookshop at Queenscliff in Victoria, who said that some of their bestsellers ‘aren’t December releases’.

Anthony Woodcock from New Leaves in Victoria observed that there were ‘no real standout cookbooks or coffee-table books’. ‘No one book smashing the others,’ he said, although he added: ‘It’s not such a bad thing—people get more variety.’ Another Melbourne indie bookseller also felt the loss of a ‘big cookbook’. ‘We don’t have the couple of hundred sales from Nopi or Broadsheet Cookbook that we had last year,’ said the bookseller.

Outside of fiction, booksellers reported a good range across the categories. One Melbourne indie bookseller said that nonfiction was ‘very strong’ this year, while Heather Dyer from Fairfield Books in Melbourne said most categories were ‘quite strong’, except for a gap in literary fiction. Two indie booksellers complained about an overabundance of cricket titles, while Iain Aitkin from Brisbane genre specialist Pulp Fiction said it was ‘a bit weak for genre this Christmas’.

Most mentioned

Fiction

  • The Good People (Hannah Kent, Picador)
  • Night School (Lee Child, Bantam)
  • The Sellout (Paul Beatty, A&U)
  • Four Legendary Kingdoms (Matthew Reilly, Macmillan)
  • The Dry (Jane Harper, Macmillan)

Nonfiction

  • The Boy behind the Curtain (Tim Winton, Hamish Hamilton)
  • Fight Like a Girl (Clementine Ford, A&U)
  • Working Class Boy (Jimmy Barnes, HarperCollins)
  • Heat and Light (Mark Colvin, MUP)
  • True Girt (David Hunt, Black Inc.)

Children’s

  • The Midnight King (David Walliams, HarperCollins)
  • Pig the Elf (Aaron Blabey, Scholastic)
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (J K Rowling, Hachette)
  • Double Down: Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Jeff Kinney, Puffin)
  • Mega Weird: WeirDo Book 7 (Anh Do, Scholastic).

Nonbook items

Coloured pencils, which were last year’s bestselling non-book item, have died off along with the adult colouring books. Nothing in particular has replaced them, with the usual offerings of stationery, Christmas cards, calendars and diaries among the most-mentioned nonbook items.

Games, puzzles and toys are also selling well, including the Elf on the Shelf and ‘Wasgij’ (that’s jigsaw spelt backwards), while a few booksellers mentioned selling jewellery.

Dymocks book buyer Sharyn Villaverde said the book chain had seen ‘good growth’ in nonbook items, particularly in stationery, games and toys. ‘We have also had great success with anything Harry Potter related, in particular Harry Potter Trivial Pursuit,’ said Villaverde.

Mary Dalmau from Readers Feast in Melbourne said her staff’s handmade Christmas decorations and cards were selling well, as were literary t-shirts. At Mary Ryan’s, operations manager Jackie Fulton said they were selling ‘masses’ of nonbook items, including cups, handbags, cushions and ‘lots of toys’. ‘The mark-up is so much better than on books,’ said Fulton.

One of the more unusual items mentioned was ‘honey bee wraps’, a type of sustainable cling film.

Strong response to catalogues

Most bookstores (90%) had a catalogue this year and most (80%) reported a strong response from customers. Nineteen percent reported a weak response and just one percent said the response was moderate.

Scott Whitmont from Lindfield Bookshop in Sydney said the Leading Edge Summer Reading Guide was ‘strong, as it always is’. A number of bookstores mentioned seeing customers coming into the store with the catalogue in their hands, often with titles already circled. However, this also became a problem when some of the titles were sold out (see x).

Several bookstores noted that had cut back on their distribution of the catalogues due to the cost. ‘We decided not to distribute though the local paper this year and have still had a similar response to previous years when we did,’ said a WA indie bookseller about the Leading Edge Summer Reading Guide. ‘The catalogue is great, but [we’ve] chosen not to distribute through the mail because it’s expensive,’ said another Melbourne indie bookseller about the same catalogue. Kate Horton from Farrells Bookshop said they have a link online and a PDF to make it available to customers. ‘It attracts interest … we actively offer it and stuff bags with it.’

 

Supply, stock, staff and sales x

Many booksellers have expressed cautious satisfaction with the availability and supply of stock so far this Christmas, although concerns regarding delivery services, damages and unavailable titles persist. ‘Supply has generally been good—so far,’ said Chris Harrington from Books in Print in Melbourne, whose equanimity was echoed by a number of other respondents.

Harper Entertainment Distribution Services (HEDS) was singled out with praise by several booksellers. TL Distribution (TLD) drew mentions for its slow deliveries, while United Book Distributors (UBD) and delivery service TOLL were frequently criticised for split deliveries and damaged stock, although many booksellers noted that this was an ongoing issue and not just confined to Christmas. ‘One suspects they have got too big,’ said Christopher Pearce from Hobart Bookshop. ‘Freight companies are not customer-focussed,’ observed another Melbourne indie bookseller, who raised concerns about efficient delivery. ‘Four days for delivery from Scoresby to Melbourne—I could have walked there and back. Twice.’

Western Australian booksellers also noted their usual delays. ‘It’s the same as last year: some things run out, some things don’t. Being in WA, we are at a disadvantage. It takes things longer to get here anyway, but supply has gotten worse over the years,’ said one WA indie bookseller.

Availability of stock was a frequently cited issue, with many books going out of stock early and reprints not being available until the new year. ‘A lot of stock is not available—including a lot from the catalogue, which is really embarrassing,’ said Peta Semmens from Barefoot Books. ‘Publishers should know what their strong titles are.’ Unavailable titles mentioned by several booksellers include Australian Fish and Seafood Cookbook (John Susman et al, Murdoch Books), Ruby Red Shoes Goes to London (Kate Knapp, HarperCollins) and The Good People (Hannah Kent, Picador), with single mentions for books by James Halliday, Reg Mombasa, Bernard Schlink, P D James, Julia Baird and select titles in the ‘Famous Five’ spoofs.

Inaccurate stock data on TitlePage compounded the confusion around availability of titles for some booksellers, who noted instances where the availability levels on the database did not reflect stock in warehouses.

‘It seems to me that publishers are being incredibly cautious, more cautious than normal, about their stock levels,’ said Margaret Hutchings from Bookoccino in Sydney. ‘Publishers seem to be watching their inventory and not sales.’

Close to half of the booksellers (46%) surveyed said they were carrying more stock this year, down from 54% in 2015. However, independent bookstores and chains were split in their responses, with only a quarter of indies reporting that they were carrying more stock, compared to 67% of chains. Forty-eight percent of booksellers said they were carrying the same amount of stock (63% of independents and 32% of chains), up slightly from 45% in 2015. Six percent of bookstores said they were carrying less stock (12% of independents and 1% of chains).

The most common reason given by stores for carrying more stock was to offer a wider selection of book and book-related items, although the breadth of range was also given by some stores as the reason for carrying less stock. ‘We’re carrying a little bit less because of the number of different titles, compared to last year when there were a few titles that were touted as being big sellers,’ said one independent Tasmanian bookseller.

Christmas staffing remains stable for the majority of booksellers, with 79% keeping the same number of staff as last year (up from 70% in 2015). Fifteen percent of stores have increased staffing and six percent are putting on fewer staff this Christmas.

After two consecutive years of declining popularity for the Christmas sale, this year brings a renewed interest. A slight majority of booksellers (53%) still said they will not be holding a public sale, but 44% said they will host a sale after Christmas (up from 41% last year) and 3% are having a pre-Christmas sale (up from one percent in 2015).

 

Online sales and ebooks x

Twenty-nine percent of bookstores surveyed aren’t selling print books online this Christmas, with 10% not having a store website at all. For those that have embraced ecommerce, print book sales are trending upwards, with 68% of respondents reporting an increase of 10-20% and 10% of respondents reporting a 20-50% increase. Online print book sales remain the same for 10% of booksellers and a few (6%) reported a drop of between 10-20%.

None of the indies surveyed are selling ebooks, and only one reported that they plan to in the next year. Ebook sales are either the same or slightly down for the chains.

All online-only booksellers surveyed reported a rise in sales. At Booktopia, CEO Tony Nash reported that sales for both print and ebooks were up. Nash said sales were strong across all categories, with the bestselling print book sales for Booktopia coming from: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (J K Rowling, Hachette), The Barefoot Investor (Scott Pape, Wrightbooks), Double Down: Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Jeff Kinney, Puffin), Night School (Lee Child, Bantam), The Midnight Gang (David Walliams, HarperCollins), The Four Legendary Kingdoms (Matthew Reilly, Macmillan), Guinness World Records 2017 and Pig the Elf (Aaron Blabey, Scholastic).

 

Publishers’ perspectives x

Australia’s large and medium-sized publishers are reasonably happy with sales in the lead-up to Christmas, with most reporting that sales are either ‘about the same’ as last year or down slightly.

The drop-off in adult colouring books was mentioned by several publishers as a factor in the slight downturn. ‘In October and November last year we sold incredible numbers of colouring in books,’ Hachette Australia’s joint MD Louise Sherwin-Stark told Books+Publishing. ‘These exceptional sales came to a dramatic halt in December 2015, and we expect to make up ground this month.’

The Christmas rush also appears to be hitting later this year, with several publishers pointing the finger at global politics. ‘I think the world has been quite focussed on politics at home and abroad this past six months,’ said Murdoch Books sales and marketing director Matt Hoy. ‘With so much uncertainly about, it’s certainly had an effect on retail.’ HarperCollins CEO James Kellow also noted that ‘a year of turmoil and change, and the US election, seems to have delayed consumer shopping’.

That said, most publishers still expect Christmas to be ‘okay’ or ‘excellent’. In general, online print book sales are ‘about the same’ or up on last year, while ebook sales ‘about the same’ or down.

Christmas sales are ‘about the same’ as last year, according to Penguin Random House sales and operations director Gavin Schwarcz. Children’s books and film tie-ins feature prominently in the publisher’s bestsellers, including books from Jeff Kinney, Peter FitzSimons, Fiona McIntosh, Paula Hawkins and Zoe Sugg.

Hachette Australia’s joint MD Louise Sherwin-Stark has reported a ‘better than expected’ Christmas on the back of several new Harry Potter releases, although the publisher’s overall sales are down slightly on last year due to the drop in adult colouring book sales. ‘We are having a good Christmas and have obviously benefited from strong sales of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,’ said Sherwin-Stark. ‘It’s also a great year for commercial fiction, with the new book John Grisham performing very strongly indeed against his previous book. Songs of a War Boy by Deng Adut is our stand out memoir.’

Sales of the publisher’s ebooks are ‘about the same’ as last year, with bestsellers dominated by international commercial fiction, including The Whistler by John Grisham, Two by Two by Nicholas Sparks, Blood Mirror by Brent Weeks, Between Sister by Cathy Kelly and Crimson Death by Laurell K Hamilton.

Sales are up at HarperCollins, reports CEO James Kellow. ‘It has taken a long time to get going but it feels like a very broad range this Christmas, with one or two books breaking out to huge levels. David Walliams, Jimmy Barnes and Donna Hay have been terrific so far.’ Memoir and children’s books have been the strongest-performing categories for the publisher, led by Walliams’ The Midnight Gang, Barnes’ Working Class Boy, Hay’s Basics to Brilliance, The Art of Cycling by Cadel Evans and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

Sales are also up at Simon & Schuster after ‘a slow start’, says managing director Dan Ruffino. ‘We have a good spread of fiction, nonfiction and kids’ books performing strongly.’ These include: Frenemies Forever: Dork Diaries Book 11 by Rachel Renee Russell, Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen, Try Hard by Em Rusciano, Hidden Killers by Lynda La Plante and Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick. The 8-Week Blood Sugar Diet by Michael Mosley is one of the publisher’s strongest ebook bestsellers, while international fiction titles The Girl from Venice (Martin Cruz Smith), Hidden Killers (Lynda La Plante), Order to Kill (Vince Flynn) and Sleeping Beauty Killer (Mary Higgins Clark & Alafair Burke) are also performing well in ebook format. Overall ebook sales are down for the publisher this Christmas.

Fiction, lifestyle and children’s books are performing strongly for Pan Macmillan, including A Distant Journey by Di Morrissey, The Bikini Body 28-Day Healthy Eating and Lifestyle Guide by Kayla Itsines, The 78-Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, No Man’s Land by David Baldacci and The Good People by Hannah Kent.

Sales are ‘about the same as last year’ for Allen & Unwin, according to group sales and marketing director Jim Demetriou. ‘Our fiction and children’s lists are our best-performing categories at the moment with Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things, Michael Connelly’s The Wrong Side of Goodbye and Paul Jenning’s Unforgettable What’s His Name selling brilliantly. But we are expecting, as we get closer to Christmas, that our lead nonfiction titles such as The Last Crocodile Hunter by Bob Irwin and Ah, Well Nobody’s Perfect by Molly Meldrum will shine.’

Sales of ebooks are down for Allen & Unwin, with the highest sales recorded for Picoult and Connelly, as well as local fiction titles The Last Painting of Sara De Vos by Dominic Smith, The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood and Fearless by Fiona Higgins.

Sales are also steady for A&U stablemate Murdoch Books. ‘It’s taken a while to really get going but we’re pleased with the results so far,’ said sales and marketing director Matt Hoy. ‘We enjoyed some success with colouring last season and it’s not easy to replace that volume but other parts of our list are performing well.’

Food and children’s books lead the bestsellers for Murdoch Books, as well as film and TV tie-ins ‘from our cousins at Atlantic Books’. These include: More Please! by Manu Feildel, Weber’s BBQ Bible, Australian Fish and Seafood Cookbook, Sweet! Celebrations and Nutella. ‘We’re eagerly awaiting reprints for Weber and Australian Fish and Seafood Cookbook and our beautiful Frida Kahlo at Home book which will all arrive shortly,’ said Hoy. Ebook sales are ‘about the same’ for the publisher, with the top sales coming from Heal Your Gut, Scandinavian Belly Fat Diet and Sweet! Celebrations.

Text’s top Christmas titles this year are coming from commercial and literary fiction, and memoir. Bestsellers include Magda Szubanski’s Reckoning, Graeme Simsion’s The Best of Adam Sharp and The Rosie Project, Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and Garry Disher’s Signal Loss. The bestsellers in ebook are largely the same, with the addition of the Booker Prize-shortlisted His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet.

A number of small publishers also responded to our pre-Christmas survey. While small publishers don’t generally benefit from a significant boost in Christmas sales, several publishers noted that their sales were up on last year.

‘We have had two really strong months in terms of sales—better than 2015,’ said Dennis Jones, director of small press distributor Dennis Jones and Associates. ‘There are so many books for consumers to find—either in store or online.’

‘Well-promoted and well-priced lifestlyle books’ were the strongest-performing categories for the distributor, including The Art of Frugal Hedonism (Annie Raser-Rowland & Adam Grubb, Melliodora Publishing), Food as Medicine (Sue Radd, Signs Publishing), Sweet Greek Life (Kathy Tsaples, Melbourne Books), Midnight Oil (Michael Lawrence, Melbourne Books) and Falling in Love with Food (Zoe Bingley-Pullin, self-published). Jones said online print book sales have increased this year while ebook sales are ‘about the same’. ‘The Global POD program is working well with continued US demand for Australian authors,’ said Jones.

 

All down to the last week x

Booksellers are hoping for a big final week of sales, but are preparing themselves for Christmas sales that are somewhere between ‘okay’ and ‘excellent’.

Just under half of booksellers (47%) are expecting Christmas sales to be ‘excellent’—down significantly from 80% last year, but up from 28% the year before. Forty-one percent are expecting Christmas sales to be ‘okay’ (19% in 2015) and 12% are expecting them to be ‘disappointing’ (one percent in 2015).

The chains are more optimistic, with two-thirds expecting ‘excellent’ sales and one third expecting sales to be ‘okay’. By comparison, 28% of the indies are expecting ‘excellent’ sales, 49% are expecting ‘okay’ sales and 23% are expecting ‘disappointing’ sales. ‘We’re hoping for excellent, expecting okay,’ said Mandi McIntosh from Book Bazaar in NSW.

Bill Concannon from Mary Ryan’s is expecting Christmas to be ‘okay’. ‘It will all depend on the last five days sales,’ he said. A Melbourne indie, who is expecting a ‘disappointing’ Christmas, also noted that it ‘could still be saved by a late rush’. ‘The Book Depository’s last day for Christmas orders is today (13/12) so we’re hoping that we’ll get a boost of last-minute orders after that,’ said an Adelaide indie.

Booksellers are still confident in the public’s support for the printed book. ‘The book trade is quite healthy I think. People don’t spend as much as maybe they used to but that’s understandable’, said a NSW indie. Another indie in WA observed: ‘The comments I’m getting is that people are sick of plastic toys and screens, and that they want to get back to traditional gifts like books.’

 

 

 

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